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Saturday, December 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — “What if the government starts enforcing the espionage statute whenever there’s a leak?” Steve Roberts, a former New York Times journalist who teaches at George Washington University, observed to The Baltimore Sun. “It’s going to have a tremendously chilling effect on this interplay between sources and reporters.”

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) insisted that stopping leaks should be a very high priority. “When national security secrets leak and become public knowledge,” he wrote in a letter to the president, “our people and our national interests are jeopardized. And when our enemies know our secrets, American lives are threatened.”

As it happens, these two quotations are separated by seven years. Roberts was speaking in 2005 about the furor over Dana Priest’s important story in The Washington Post revealing that the CIA had maintained a series of “black sites” abroad where terrorism detainees were interrogated. At the time, Priest came under searing attack from allies of George W. Bush’s administration.

Smith’s letter was to President Obama in 2012. It complained about national security leaks that set off the very investigation which this week prompted fury over the Justice Department’s seizure of two months’ worth of telephone records of a group of Associated Press reporters.

Isn’t it odd that many Republicans who demanded a thorough investigation a year ago are now condemning the Justice Department for doing what they asked for? Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus even called on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, saying he had “trampled on the First Amendment.”

It’s a funny thing about media leaks: They are either courageous or outrageous, depending on whether they help or hurt your political party.

Forgive me for feeling cynical and depressed about our nation’s political conversation. Scandalmania is distorting our discussion of three different issues, sweeping them into one big narrative — everything is a “narrative” these days — about the beleaguered second-term presidency of Barack Obama. What’s being buried under a storyline?

On leaks, I don’t believe that the media have unlimited immunity. But I am very pro-leak because such disclosures are often the only way citizens in a free society can find out things they need to know. The Justice Department’s actions in the AP case seem to go way beyond what is justified or necessary. There was no need to ignore guidelines suggesting that news organizations should usually have the chance to negotiate or challenge subpoenas.